'I felt as captain I had certain responsibilities to change the culture'

Mahela Jayawardene talks about reforming Sri Lankan cricket, and the challenges of handling big-name players like Murali, Jayasuriya and Atapattu

Interview by Gaurav Kalra  |  

Play 23:29

Watch and read part one of the interview here

The 2007 World Cup was a very successful campaign for you. Sri Lanka reached the final, but there was the issue of leaving Marvan Atapattu out of the playing XI. That created a lot of controversy at the time. Can you recall how those days went and whether that affected your relationship with Atapattu?
Yeah, Marvan was our captain and he should have been leading the team in the 2007 World Cup. But because of his back injuries, I took over for a short period. Then the selectors and the coach, Tom Moody, decided that I should lead the team in the World Cup.

At that time, Upul Tharanga was scoring plenty of runs. He and Sanath Jayasuriya were explosive and winning matches for us. We had a very good middle order in [Tillakaratne] Dilshan, Russel Arnold and Chamara Silva, who were scoring lots of runs. When we went to the Caribbean, Marvan was part of the team because we felt that we needed the experience. We played New Zealand in a warm-up and Upul got a hundred, Marvan got 20. Tom and I had the chat with Marvan when we got back to the hotel and explained to him why he wasn't going to start the World Cup as an opening batsman.

How did that conversation go?
Well, I think he did not take it in the right way, but I felt for us to make an impact in that tournament, Sanath and Upul were the best two openers to go with. Marvan is a very honest player. He played really hard, but he didn't take it in the right spirit, so throughout the World Cup, his contribution wasn't very good as a member of the team. But we had a great campaign. Everyone thought we'll probably go out in the group stages, but we topped the group and went as a second-best team in the Super Eights stage and then all the way to the final.

When we got back, Marvan played a few more Test matches and retired. He didn't speak to me probably for a good four to five years after that. Our first conversation probably was when he was appointed the batting coach of the national team.

I guess he had no choice but to resume conversation?
Yeah, but I felt I hadn't done anything wrong. I remember there was another conversation we had in England with the team management and he was there as well. He said he didn't take it in the right spirit and for him not to speak to me for four years was something that he regretted and he apologised for that. That was enough for me. We got along well after that. He was with the national team for a good five to six years after that and became head coach of the team.

"As a leader you have to make the hard choices. Sometimes it might not work in your favour, but you have to accept that you made the calls with the right intentions"

There was one player who was always going to be in the team and that was Muttiah Muralitharan - at his peak the best bowler in the world and your main weapon. Did handling him as captain present its own set of challenges?
Murali was a very simple man. He is probably the first guy to take the newest player in the team for a dinner. He did that with me when I joined the team and he did that with the youngest guy who came when he was retiring. So you didn't have any issues with Murali. The more wickets he took, the more humble he was, and it was so easy to work with someone like Murali. Yes, he's a bit stubborn when he is bowling and he wanted certain things done, but we always had constructive conversations.

A carefully chosen word.
Yeah. He's got a very defensive mindset as a bowler. He wants to take his time. Murali was a defensive bowler but he had everything covered. I was a different captain. I wanted to attack with Murali more and Murali only attacked when he felt he was in control of the situation. I wanted to use him in a different way. I wanted to create opportunities for him rather than us sitting and waiting for an opening.

I think Arjuna [Ranatunga] and Sanath probably had the same battles with Murali [that I did]. But with Arjuna, because Murali was young and just coming through, he probably didn't have a choice. But it was quite tough for Sanath to tell Murali, let's attack. I've encouraged Murali, but we've always found a middle ground.

Can you remember plotting a dismissal or plotting a passage of play where you told him, "See, I told you we could do that and you've done it."?
There is one incident. I wasn't the captain, Hashan [Tillakaratne] was. England toured Sri Lanka in 2003 and we played a draw in Galle. We couldn't get the last two wickets and the game was rain-affected.

Then we moved to Kandy for the second Test. We batted first, got 300-350 [382]. England scored about 225 [294]. On the fourth day, when we had a 275 to 300-run lead, I said to Hashan, "You know, it's Kandy, I am not sure how the weather is going to be tomorrow. I think the wicket is slow, it's turning. We've got 275 now. I think it's more than enough because England is going to be very defensive. They want to save this Test match. We should be declaring straight away."

Muttiah Muralitharan and Sri Lanka appeal for a wicket in Kandy, 2003

Muttiah Muralitharan and Sri Lanka appeal for a wicket in Kandy, 2003 © Getty Images

Murali's got ears like elephants. He came rushing in and said, "I know what you are saying to Hashan. You want to declare now. You're not the one who is going to bowl. I'm the one who has to bowl. We need 350-375 runs because then the England batsmen know they can't score."

I said, 275 is enough. They are still going to defend. They aren't going to play shots. He said, "Yeah, but you don't know that. If you declare now I am not going go bowl. You can bowl." And he walked off. So Hashan didn't declare. We batted for another hour and a bit more and got [a lead of] 368 and declared. I remember Chaminda [Vaas] picking up a wicket. The next day England scored 170 [196] and we drew the Test. They just blocked and blocked and blocked. I remember a huge incident with Nasir Hussain sending for gloves. It was very unlike the English. But the match ended in a draw. After the match, Murali was in a corner not saying much and Hashan was really upset that he didn't make the early declaration.

On the advice of a youngster…
We had other guys who wanted as well to declare. Murali realised at that point how effective he is and that we missed a trick. But luckily we went to Colombo and beat England and won the series 1-0.

Did you let him know?
I did. I was young, a bit of an arrogant guy in the dressing room as well, so I told Murali, remember this, I told you so. Murali did that and we managed to win the next Test, so everything was fine. But I think after that Murali realised the potential he had. We managed to get him out of that very defensive mindset and he became one of the best bowlers.

Another great player in that Sri Lankan team of the '90s was Sanath Jayasuriya. As he was finishing his career, there were difficulties in phasing him out of the team. Was that another tricky time for you as captain?
Yeah, it was a tough decision. In one-day cricket Sanath was quite solid when I led the team in 2007 to the Caribbean and even afterwards. His decline was in Test cricket.

"When Angelo joined the national team we straight away realised that he doesn't get flustered by situations as a batsman. He manages to find a way out and, most often, on a winning note"

When Tom Moody took over in 2006, we toured England. Leading up to that series, in 12 months Sanath was averaging something around 12 [18] as opening batsman and he was exposing Sanga [Kumar Sangakkara] quite early. So we left Sanath out for that tour of England for the Tests.

At Lord's, we had to bat out of our skins to save that Test. I think eight players got fifties or more. After the game we came back to the hotel and saw Sanath in the hotel lobby checking in. The sports minister had signed off that Sanath is going to be part of our tour party. That's how Sri Lankan cricket politics works, and that's something I had to deal with as a captain. I don't blame anyone for that, but that is the culture. I think we played him in the third Test because it was a spin-friendly wicket. We utilised him as a spin option and batted him at No. 6 and we won that Test.

We had a bit of a friction in making that decision and him not accepting that. I felt that was the right thing to do. We always had frank discussions with the players [we were dropping] and then explained to them why. As a leader you have to make the hard choices. Sometimes it might not work in your favour, but you have to accept that you made the calls with the right intentions.

Did the administrative issues wear you down?
Yeah, it definitely wears you down. The three or bit more years that I was the captain I didn't enjoy probably half the time I had the job. It was too much for me to handle. If I had continued to captain, I would have probably retired much earlier, because it was way too much - the administration, the things we have to go through trying to get our contracts, trying to get little things done, select the best XI.

Sri Lanka is the only country where the sports minister selects the selectors. Sri Lanka Cricket doesn't have a say in that. Even when you select the team, you're not sure until that signature is put on that piece of paper whether it's approved or not. The selectors are under the guidance of the sports minister so they don't have to explain anything to Sri Lanka Cricket.

"Marvan said he didn't take it [being dropped] in the right spirit and for him not to speak to me for four years was something that he regretted and he apologised for that" © AFP

I still don't understand and I didn't understand that as a captain as well. I was taking work home, in the sense that when I went home, I was still thinking about issues and scenarios that I have to deal with the next day or coming weeks, and it's something that I didn't enjoy doing. I enjoyed the cricket, the challenges I had on the field and the group that I had was brilliant, but everything else wasn't something I enjoyed.

Yet you made attempts to inject some reform into Sri Lankan cricket. You tried to introduce a system of contracts. You've got a blueprint ready for first-class cricket.
I felt that as a captain I had certain responsibilities towards the players and to change the culture. I felt that doing that will help the team in the long run. I shouldn't take [all the] credit. I think even the time when Sanath took over as captain, he made quite a few changes and kept on improving.

The contract structure we had, the different payment systems we had for seniors and juniors was something that Kumar and I did not enjoy as young cricketers in that set-up. When we got the responsibility of making those decisions, we made some drastic changes to our slab structure and how people were being paid, and to try and be transparent and fair to other players. We introduced a lot of new things into our contracts - where families are looked after, or families can travel with the players. That gave a lot of comfort to many other cricketers.

I tried to be proactive in telling Sri Lanka Cricket about the areas where we need to improve. When Aravinda [de Silva] came into the administration, he was the first one who tried to come up with this provincial cricket [system] because he felt that club cricket wasn't improving our cricket. That was in 2004. We played in that provincial tournament and I really enjoyed that cricket. It was a very competitive set-up. Two years later when [that administration] was removed, the tournament died. I wanted to keep it going. I tried to explain to them why we need that structure, but because I was a contracted player, I couldn't go beyond a certain protocol and voice my frustration. Right now I can voice my frustration and I have voiced it, because Sri Lanka has a lot of talent but the progress of players is slow compared to other countries.

There was a phase when Sri Lanka got to lots of tournament finals - 2007, 2011, two World T20 finals [2009 and 2012] as well. But all those finals ended in defeat. As a leader in that team how does that play out? Does it scare you when the final comes on the horizon again?
It was a hugely disappointing time when we lost all those finals. But we took every final and realised the good things about it. That's why we've been consistent for a long period of time. We had a good group of players and our thinking processes were good. Our planning for the World Cups and the teams we picked were good. We knew we were doing the right things. We were winning matches in big tournaments, holding our nerve in crunch games. But not winning the final was a huge problem for us. We wanted to find out why we were not mentally prepared for a final. In a couple of finals, individual brilliance of one or two players took the game away from us. But there were a couple of finals where we probably made a few mistakes in decisions or we couldn't execute our game plan. Those are things we spoke about and encouraged ourselves to just keep that focus. We'll win the next final. It didn't come until 2014.

"I'll watch other sports and just flick through the channel to see what the [cricket] scores are, because I analyse it way too much and I don't enjoy it as a retired player"

Was that an aspect of captaincy that you enjoyed a lot - the planning, how you are going to approach a batsman with plan A, plan B, plan C?
I really enjoyed that and I think the team enjoyed it as well. We gave a lot of roles to different players. They have to be responsible for coming up with certain ideas and we refined it and executed it. We would have one or two or three plans against certain players. If one doesn't work, we go for the next one. I have always had a theory that as captain if your gut feeling tells you to do something, do it on the field rather than coming back and regretting not doing it.

Can you remember an incident where that happened?
Quite a few times. One was in the 2007 World Cup semi-final against New Zealand. We got an early wicket from Lasith [Malinga] and then they were going after our quick bowlers. Murali bowled two overs and they looked comfortable because they had got into a rhythm. I felt nothing was happening. I wanted to throw the ball to a part-timer because New Zealand were in a good mood, so they might try to take a chance and we could sneak in a wicket. So we bowled Dilshan and Scott Styris came down to hit him, and got caught at short midwicket. That was one instance when I felt that a part-time bowler, who they might not take so seriously, might work for us, and it worked.

There's a lot of talk that goes around the circuit about Sri Lankans supposedly being nice guys. But sometimes when you talk to players they say the Sri Lankans gave it back to us as good as they got. Was that something you talked about, or was this a generation of younger, more confident players who you didn't feel like you needed to restrain?
That's something Arjuna started. He was very feisty and he gave it back to some of the opposition and we realised that sometimes they don't take it properly and actually make mistakes.

And then, like you said, the younger generation were a confident group of players. We were winning matches, competing overseas and doing well in big tournaments and World Cups. Once you get that kind of confidence, when a team tries to play those mind games, we felt it's time we take them on. And more often than not, we realised that we were winning those battles as well. We didn't encourage guys to do it all the time.

"It was a hugely disappointing time when we lost all those finals. But we took every final and realised the good things about it" © Getty Images

Were you a contributor too?
Very much so, but not in a way that people could see me contributing. Sanga was quite influential in that department, because he was quite cheeky. He didn't confront people, but in his own little way he knew exactly how to get under their skin.

Was Angelo Mathews identified as the heir-apparent and you worked diligently, religiously on the idea of ensuring that Sri Lanka had a readymade captain by the time you and Sangakkara left?
Yes, I think it was our responsibility, and he was a Sri Lankan Under-19 captain. When he joined the national team we straightaway realised that he doesn't get flustered by situations as a batsman. He manages to find a way out and, most often, on a winning note.

We felt he was the guy and we made sure that he was given more responsibility within the group even as a young player. When Kumar gave up his captaincy for pretty much the same reasons I did, we wanted Angelo to take over. We felt he was ready. But they gave it to Dilshan for a little while. When they wanted me to take over again, I insisted that they give it Angelo, but then the situation of the team wasn't good enough for Angelo to take the captaincy. So I had to step in for 12 months. That was my contract. I said, January to December, that's it, and the only way I will take it is if they give Angelo the captaincy once I finish. At the end of 2012, Angelo took over as the national captain and, I think, so far he's done a very good job. Yes, with the players around him, it'll take a bit of time, performance wise, to settle, but I think they are heading in the right direction.

Is T20 cricket harder to captain than the longer formats?
It is, because it goes at a very fast pace and that is something you have to adapt to as a captain. We always have to be a couple overs in front of the game, especially on the field, because in a T20 game four balls or three balls could change the entire game. Tactically, you have to react very quickly. You need to have an understanding of what the opposition's options are and try to use what you've got to disrupt that momentum.

Are there any players you see around the circuit today who impress you as captains?
I think anyone who thinks differently I always admire, because you are creating doubts among the opposition, like field settings sending different batsmen at different times, changing the dynamics of the opposition and how the other team reacts to those things.

Brendon McCullum was one guy in the last few years who has been quite good at that. MS [Dhoni] has been very good, especially the way he changes bowlers and how he attacks. I think, to a certain extent, even Kane Williamson, who came into this World T20 as a young leader - I was quite impressed.

Do you sit back in bed watching a match and say, I would've done that?
It's the biggest problem I have watching cricket, because I'm very analytical in watching the game and I don't enjoy that much. So I try not to watch cricket unless it's a very good game. I'll watch other sports and I'll just flick through the channel to see what the scores are and go back again, purely because I analyse it way too much and I don't enjoy it as a neutral or a retired player.

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Gaurav Kalra is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo. @gauravkalra75